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Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen is the real deal.

Although I was born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line, I'm about as Southern as John Kerry. For a shamefully long time, I assumed everything thrown on a grill was barbecue. I thought grits and creamed corn were one and the same.

These days I can consult my fiancée about matters Southern. She was born in Florida, raised in Dallas and went to college in Memphis. Half a decade living in the Midwest has smoothed out her accent some, but she's still got a hankering for Southern cuisine.

Since Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen opened in Webster Groves in October, few weeks have passed without my fiancée asking whether it was time to visit. Highway 61's menu is like an encyclopedia of stick-to-your-ribs Southern food — but this alone didn't account for her excitement.

Highway = Heaven: Waiter Colian Spight carries a pint of barbecue's best friend.
Jennifer Silverberg
Highway = Heaven: Waiter Colian Spight carries a pint of barbecue's best friend.

Location Info

Map

Hwy 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen

34 S Old Orchard Ave
Webster Groves, MO 63119

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Webster Groves

Details

Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen
34 South Old Orchard Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-968-0061.
Hours: Dinner 4:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 4:30 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. (Bar open till 1:30 a.m. Mon.-Sat.)

Cream corn soufflé $3.25
Andouille arancini $6.95
Shrimp-and-crawfish étouffée $13.95
St. Louis-style spare ribs (half slab) $14.95
"The King" $4.95

The real reason, she said, was that Highway 61 has barbecue spaghetti. This, according to her and the restaurant's menu, is a Memphis tradition. I'd never heard of it, of course, but after a moment's fear that barbecue spaghetti belongs to the same group of foods as deep-fried mac 'n' cheese, I decided to trust her.

As it turns out, barbecue spaghetti is exactly what it sounds like: thick-cut spaghetti and pulled pork in Highway 61's tangy, peppery barbecue sauce. It's a simple dish, as filling as can be, and if I'd attended college in Memphis, I probably would have eaten it once a day, at least.

U.S. Route 61 starts in New Orleans and ends in the tiny town of Wyoming, Minnesota, but in the mythos of American music and the kitchen of Highway 61 Roadhouse, everything north of St. Louis is boring old blacktop. It's an iconic road, and basing a restaurant on its food and musical heritage could easily come off as a gimmick and nothing more.

But Highway 61 feels more like a celebration. The restaurant took over the space whose previous tenant was Ellie Forcella, part of local restaurateur Tim Mallett's Great Restaurants group (Blue Water Grill in Kirkwood, Remy's in Clayton and Big Sky Cafe a little ways up Old Orchard). Now the cavernous room features a sweeping mural of Route 61's legendary musicians — too many to count, really, which is why the mural stretches over three high walls. When I ate there during the open-mic blues jam session, the musicians waiting their turn sat with their guitars out, pretending to strum along. Another night a group of women danced in the narrow space between tables.

The menu developed by owners Bill Kunz and Dave Freese and kitchen manager Steve Meyer is nearly as long as Route 61 itself: barbecue, naturally; seafood, meat and pasta; pizza and burgers; po' boy and muffaletta sandwiches; nearly two dozen starters, soups and salads. And that's not to mention the side dishes, several of which are enough for a small meal by themselves, or (if you somehow save room) the desserts.

Almost every starter I tried was good, though the generous portions threatened to end my meals before I ordered any entrées. The standouts: the fried tamales and the andouille arancini. The tamales, from the Mississippi Delta, were crisp and not at all greasy on the outside, and moist inside, with an authentic cornmeal flavor and a piquant note. Arancini, breaded and fried balls of rice, are an Italian specialty. Highway 61 adds andouille sausage and Asiago cheese, and the result is much like the savory, spicy mixture you find inside stuffed peppers.

Waffle-cut French fries drowning in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce were a simple (guilty) pleasure. I also loved the "Louisiana BBQ Shrimp" — or, more accurately, I liked the shrimp but loved the Worcestershire sauce-spiked butter that was served with the shrimp, which I happily soaked up with slices of French bread. The only unsuccessful starter was a thick slice of grilled provolone cheese; it was bland and more chewy than gooey.

From Highway 61's barbecue pit, you can get pulled pork, spare ribs, a pork steak or chicken, all of it served with the same excellent barbecue sauce that accompanies the barbecue spaghetti. I tried a half-slab of St. Louis-style spare ribs, which were very meaty and tender, with a nice, blush-colored smoke ring and the right touch of smoky flavor to round out the flavor of the sauce.

On my next visit I wanted to try the fillet of red snapper grilled on a cedar plank, but it was sold out, so I ordered chicken breast stuffed with andouille sausage and tasso ham. The boneless, skinless breast was divided into four pieces and topped with "andouille cream sauce." I couldn't taste much andouille in the sauce, and the dish as a whole fell flat. The stuffing didn't have as much kick as the pairing of andouille and tasso might suggest, and the chicken was overdone.

Pan-fried chicken, on the other hand, was excellent. This too was a boneless and skinless breast, but it remained perfectly tender beneath its crisp crust. It was served in a "white gravy," but its color and flavor suggested a hint of sherry.

I'm not a huge fan of catfish. Wild catfish has an almost oily flavor that I find unpleasant, and farm-raised catfish can be mild to the point of irrelevance. Highway 61's fried catfish split the difference, with just enough fishiness to stand up to its cornmeal breading. Among the seafood selections, though, I preferred the shrimp-and-crawfish étouffée, which had a mellow and mildly spicy flavor that contrasted nicely with the buttery shellfish.

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